Getting back to Xest was the easy part. It’s staying here that seems to be the problem.
I have three hags, also known as Xest Immigration, hot on my tail trying to deport me back to Salem. The wall I built in the Unsettled Lands is in jeopardy. Hawk, a man who was once my ally, can’t decide if he wants to lead the horde trying to drive me out or kiss me. Not to mention, everyone keeps calling me the Nowhere witch, and I’ve got a hunch it’s not a compliment.
But when the betrayals start rolling in, I realize I’ve got bigger problems. Staying alive becomes the most important issue of the day.
Dead leaves blew across the ground, looking like small creatures scuttling by, spying on the neighborhood, its occupants, its tourists. The wind whistled and howled, and I would’ve sworn it was saying, “Tippi.”
“Shut up,” I told it.
Of course, the wind ignored me and continued to call my name. A tingle spread over my flesh like a low current was charging my body. It felt so real, as if I could reach out my hand and touch the magic. I ignored it the way I always did. Most of me was sane, even if I had a toe or two over the line. I could attest to this because whenever I did do something crazy, I knew enough to hide it. True crazy was when you had no idea. One day, I might completely succumb to my mother’s sickness, but for now, I still knew none of it was real.
It hadn’t always been that way, though. When I’d been a child, I’d look around and think that there was something more lurking beyond the visible. My mother would tell me it was all real. Believing her, I’d hide in the closet, waiting for gremlins to come and fetch me in the dark of the night. I’d wake looking for monsters under the bed she swore were real. But that was all in the past. I wasn’t a child anymore and had ceased to be one way before most people. I shoved the bad memories from my mind as best I could and got on with what I was here for.
I took the cupcake out of the small pink-dotted box from my mother’s favorite bakery and put the candle on it. Shielding it from the wind, I lit it and placed it down.
“Happy birthday, Mom.”
Silence greeted me. I’d pretty much expected it. Although she had told me if she ever died, she’d find a way to talk to me from the other side, I didn’t fault her for failing. It was hard to talk when you were six feet under. If there was anyone who might’ve been able to achieve it, though, it would’ve been her.
As far as mothers, she hadn’t been the best. I didn’t blame her entirely. Mental illness didn’t make it easy. Refusing to get help made it worse.
“So, we haven’t seen each other in a long while,” I said, filling the silence. Our one-sided conversations were actually an improvement on the ones we’d had when she was alive.
There was one conversation we needed to have that I would’ve dreaded if she were still around. As it were, I still wasn’t looking forward to it. I reached my hand behind me, to the top of my spine, right below my neck, the skin sore.
“I guess I should tell you I got rid of it. Or almost. The doctor said after this last treatment, it should fade completely in the next few weeks.”
Silence. That in itself proved she couldn’t communicate from beyond.
“I know what you want to say, but it’s not true. None of it,” I told her.
I’d never wanted it. Had cried every time she’d refreshed it. Now it was gone, this thing most people would’ve called child abuse, and I somehow felt guilty.
“Hey!” someone yelled.
I jumped, thinking she’d figured out a way after all, before realizing the voice was nothing like hers. I looked about the cemetery, and a twenty-something girl with long locks of purple and blond hair walked toward me. I’d noticed her roaming around before and assumed she was looking for a grave.
“Do you have some salt on you? Mine leaked, and I don’t have enough to make the jump. I’ve only got a couple of grains, and I don’t want to end up in Greenland or something.”
“Salt?” I looked up at her from where I was sitting cross-legged in front of my mother’s grave. Who went around asking people in a cemetery for salt?
“Yeah, for the jump?” she said, mirroring my look of confusion.
“Why do you need salt to jump?” Now this was crazy. I’d thought spending ten dollars on a cupcake, which would never be eaten for a birthday party of one, had been the strangest thing I’d do today. This conversation was quickly topping it. People like this were the reason I could claim sanity.
“How else would I do it? Do you know a way to jump without it?” She leaned over a little, as if I had the secret to the universe. “Wait, you’re not a…” She leaned closer, staring awkwardly at me. “Or are you?”
“Am I what?” I asked.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, looking about the place.
“It’s a cemetery. I’m visiting. What are you doing?”
The more I said, the farther her jaw dropped and the bigger her eyes opened.
“Whoa. This place is so weird.” She shook her head and took off, jogging away from me.
This was turning out to be a stranger than normal day, which was fitting, considering what my mother had been like.
I looked down at my watch and stood up, wiping the dirt from my pants.
“Sorry to cut your party short, Mom, but I gotta go. I’ll try to stop by again in a…” I didn’t know when I’d be back. I hated coming here. Would probably always dread it.
“I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but I will be.” I had a hard time making promises to the dead, just in case they were listening. That would have to do.
I leaned down and blew out the candle. “Enjoy your cupcake.”
I gave the top of her flat tombstone a pat, the way I used to give her hand a pat when I’d visit her at the asylum.
* * *
I opened the door to the shop and Loris called out from the back, “Welcome to Magic, Mayhem and Mischief. Be right with you.”
“It’s just me,” I called back, slipping out of my jacket.
A head full of white hair popped up from behind the one of many shelves that held merchandise and partitioned off different areas.
“Oh, good! I was worried about when you’d be in. I need to run some errands.”
For some reason I’d yet to figure out in my three years working here, Loris seemed to always assume I’d be late. I was there before her nearly every day and opened up the shop. The thing that kept it from being annoying was that she was always so happy to see me, as if grateful and surprised I showed up at all.
She walked around the counter, her colorful skirt and scarves sashaying around her. I pulled off my dark grey hat and tucked some black strands back into their bun.
I’d barely gotten myself together when Loris was giving me her usual morning hug. She was big on hugs, love, happiness, and pretty much everything light and bright.
I, on the other hand, grinned and bore it.
“Bun again?” Loris asked, her fingers tapping on it, as if it were a little monster attached to my hand.
“Yes,” I said, as we went through our typical morning ritual, which was every day but Monday, when the shop was closed.
“How are you going to find a boyfriend if you don’t ever doll yourself up a bit? Put some shadow on those…” She squinted, trying to decide what to call the color of eyes that had greys, greens, and amber. “Whatever that eye color is, you should do something with them.”
I tucked my purse under the counter. “I’m not trying to find a boyfriend, and you know that.” She knew because I’d told her yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.
“Well, what if one is looking for you? How’s he supposed to find you?”
“Maybe I don’t want to be found?” I didn’t wear black and grey because I wanted to stand out. I wore colors that blended into the shadows, where I liked to hide.
She lifted her shoulders and said, “Okay, I guess I’ll leave it be.”
“Thank you.” She never let it be. Ever. That wasn’t Loris.
What was going on? Why was she standing still? Oh no. Not again.
“What?” I asked, knowing it was something I wouldn’t want to hear.
“I’ve got a favor to ask.” Loris gave her biggest grin, which meant it was going to be a bad one. “I need another body at a séance tonight.”
“Loris…” I groaned, already knowing I’d say yes because I always said yes. I couldn’t say no to Loris. When no one else would give me the time of day, she’d given me a job. She’d helped me find a place to live. If it wasn’t for Loris, I might’ve been living in a box in the alley.
“I know you hate them, but I really need you this time. The client is coming by herself, and I don’t like two-person séances. They’re very awkward.”
“I hate séances,” I said, because it deserved to be mentioned at least once more before I caved, and we both knew I would.
She walked over and patted my arm. “It’s all right to be cautious. There are things in the universe that no one knows about, but I’m confident in what I’m doing. It will be fine.”
The saddest part of this was that she believed what she was saying. None of that was why I hated séances. What I truly hated was the sadness that typically came with them, people trying to talk to their lost loved ones. The whole thing brought me down. I really needed to find a different job. This place had been perfect when I was fifteen and everyone else wanted to run my paperwork. Now? I could go somewhere else.
Except who would take care of Loris? She needed me more than I needed her at this point. Every person that walked in the door tried to scam her, and I was often the only one who stopped them.
“You’ll do it for me?” She was holding her hands together in front of her.
“Fine. If you really need me.”
That problem solved, she was in motion again, heading to the register and taking out money. “We’re out of rue. I’ve got to go down the street and see if Amanda has any. Although she’ll probably lie, and then I’ll have to go beg Meg, who’ll tell me how I do everything wrong.”
Amanda and Meg had competing magic shops the next block over, which could only happen in Salem, or perhaps New Orleans. Although I’d never been more than a hundred miles from here, so I couldn’t really be sure.
“You don’t have any in the deliveries?” I asked, pointing at the boxes, knowing that Amanda and Meg would both overcharge her.
“I didn’t order any. Didn’t realize how low I was,” she said.
“Don’t pay more than…”
I gave up, as she was already gone. A strong gust of wind held the door open longer than it should, blowing in all sorts of leaves and debris with it. I’d have to sweep it out, but that could wait until later. First I had to go through the bills and see if she’d paid anyone too much while I was gone. It was easier to rake people over the coals when their crimes were fresh than later in the day, when the dirty deed would be buried under a mountain of other sins. This was why I hated coming in late. The vultures all seemed to know when I was gone.
I grabbed a ceremonial knife from the desk and started slicing open the various boxes, unpacking deliveries, and matching them to receipts, thinking of how awful the séance would be tonight. If there was crying, I’d have to leave, even if just for long bathroom breaks.
I sliced another box open, and the candles in the place flickered with the gust of wind from the door opening.
A man stood right within the door, taller than average but not monstrously so. His shoulders were square, his eyes deeply set in a chiseled face that might’ve been a little too angular to be called common. Some might even think he had a handsome face, if he didn’t seem slightly off-putting in his intensity. He might’ve been in his late twenties or thirties, but his stare felt like he’d seen it all.
Except perhaps for me? There was definitely a look of shock as he took me in. I ran a hand over my face, wondering if there was some chocolate on my face from the taste of icing I’d had.
I looked down at my fingers. Nothing there.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He scanned the room with eyes so grey they seemed nearly silver in contrast to the darkness of his skin and brows, until they settled on the counter, where a single black feather lay. I hadn’t noticed it, but it must’ve blown in when Loris left.
The more he stared at it, the more I wanted it away from me. The feeling didn’t make a lot of sense, but I just wanted the thing gone. I leaned down and blew it off the counter. It drifted off and then was taken up by a draft in the room until it circled back and landed in front of me.
I blew on it again, and it wouldn’t budge. The less it moved, the more I wanted it gone.
I had to forget the feather. I’d deal with that after I figured out what this guy wanted.
“Are you looking for something?” I asked.
He still didn’t answer as his stare landed on me. He walked closer and picked up the stray feather.
Between it being my mother’s birthday, the unsettling girl in the cemetery, and the now-looming séance, my nerves were on overload. This guy standing silently in the room, no matter how attractive, was working the last one I had.
He scanned me again, and for all his good looks, I was getting a little nervous with the perusal and the way he wasn’t talking. Although I got the strange impression he was more stunned than aggressive.
“If it’s the feather you want, take it and go. It’s not one of ours.” We did carry a line of feathers, but they were much fancier than this common crow one.
“Is there anyone else here?” he asked.
Perhaps I’d ruled out “aggressive” too hastily. “Yes. There’s a few people in the back,” I said. I dropped my hand below the counter, blindly digging around until I touched my phone.
“You’re lying, and not very well.” He held up the feather. “When did this get here? Was someone else here when it arrived?”
“I think you need to leave.”
He edged closer. I was glad the counter was between us as I stepped back, taking my phone with me.
“Tell me everyone who was here when the feather arrived.” He leaned his hands on the counter, his broad shoulder blocking out the rest of the light as the room grew darker. “How did you get the feather?”
“You need to leave right now.”
He reached forward lightning fast, grabbing my wrist in a firm grip. The phone I’d picked up dropped to the floor, and even with the excess fabric of my sweater, I couldn’t pull free.
“Who was here when this came?” he asked.
What the hell was he talking about? We got some whackos in here, but this man was insane. He made my mother look normal.
“You need to get your hand off me, now.”
“It was just me and the owner, I think.”
He dropped his hand, and I scrambled to the floor to retrieve my phone. I tried to dial nine-one-one, but the screen wouldn’t light up. Should I make a run for it?
“You need to leave or I’m calling the police.”
I held my phone so he couldn’t see the black screen of my dead phone.
He shook his head before turning and walking out.
I sagged in relief as the door swung shut behind him.
Loris called from the back room, “Tippi, are you coming?”
I glanced down at my phone that had decided to start working again. It was six o’clock and Loris was in back with the client already, completely unworried about the earlier confrontation I’d told her about. The séance I didn’t want to partake in would eat up a good hour or two. This was officially the day that wouldn’t end.
I hadn’t the heart to leave after telling Loris I’d help. Part of me—actually, all of me—had hoped she’d start the séance without me.
“Just locking the door,” I called, even though I’d done that already. There was no getting out of here until this was done, so I headed back.
The room was ready, the smell of herbs in the air. Loris believed electronics interfered with her gift, so the place was lit by candlelight. I loved Loris dearly, but wasn’t so sure the electronics were the true issue. But she believed in what she did. So did her customers, so that was enough.
I sat at the table, taking Loris’ hand and the customer’s. She was a smiling older lady who already had tissues ready beside her. Getting here late had cut back on the small talk, as I’d hoped. The questions, anything from “how long have you been speaking to the dead” to “how long will they stay and talk” made these occasions even worse than normal.
Loris began chanting as I closed my eyes, thinking about how much laundry I needed to do. It was a lot. I had one outfit left for tomorrow. My building had a few coin-operated machines in the basement and several tenants who didn’t like to remove their clothes in a timely fashion. The math didn’t work out to my benefit. If I had to dump their clothes on top of the machine tonight, I would. I’d had enough of this laundry rudeness.
“Who are you?” came a deep, gritty voice.
Hmmm. Loris was really working on her voice effects lately. That was a new one. Little on the rude side, but definitely spooky. And had she set up a remote-control fan in here or something? I felt an uncomfortable draft.
“Wh-what?” Loris asked, as if she hadn’t been the one to ask in the first place.
She was really giving it her all tonight.
“Who. Are. You?”
My fingers were about to be broken by this customer if Loris didn’t chill out soon. I was going to have to shoot her a silent signal and let her know she was taking it too far. I opened my eyes, with the intention of getting Loris’ attention, and all words, hints, and signals fled from my mind. In front of me, hovering over the table, was a genuine ghost. Like, a legitimate form in transparent white. Considering Loris couldn’t use her cell phone reliably, this had to be the real thing.
“Who are you?” it asked, looking solely at me.
Loris and the client were staring at the ghost, stunned.
“I wasn’t paid for a call. Who are you to summon me? You better be paying for this!” the ghost continued, her face wavering in and out. She was still clear enough to see the angry lines of her expression.
“I did pay her!” the customer said, thinking the ghost was referring to Loris.
I didn’t know who was supposed to be “paid,” but I’d bet my rent it wasn’t Loris. This ghost seemed to think I was supposed to pay her.
Loris was chanting some “Oh, great spirit” crap beside me.
“How much do you want?” I asked. I had some coffee money in my purse if it would make her feel better.
“You didn’t pay,” she said, almost too clearly for someone who was supposedly dead and talking from the other side. The ghost looked like a bitter hag as she shoved her finger in my face. “Don’t call us again without a negotiated deal, jerk.”
Jerk? Did that ghost really call me a jerk? I’d heard of nasty ghosts that would haunt your house or possess you. But this? What was this?
“Wait, I have to talk to Mama!” the customer yelled from beside me, grasping at the now-empty space.
The ghost was gone. The customer was screaming, “Come back!” Loris had her hands clasped in front of her chest as she repeated something about thanking the mother.
Me? I was sitting there, not talking, not moving, except for the trembling in my hands as I thought about how the wind had whispered my name, and the leaves had looked like little trolls scurrying across the ground, following me.
It had all been in my head. That was what I always told myself. But if that was the case, what had happened tonight? I had two witnesses that could attest to this not being a delusion.
I leapt to my feet.
“I gotta go,” I said, not caring if anyone heard me.
Loris was still busy thanking the mother while the customer was walking around the room crying for the ghost to come back, waving her hands in the air.
I shot into the front room, grabbed my purse from under the counter, and hustled out of there. I needed to get to a tattoo shop, and there was only one that stayed open late enough on a Sunday to get this done for me. I walked a few steps, then jogged a few feet before I ran the rest of the way.
I burst through the door of the Ink Well. A single tattooist was leaning over, tattooing a tiger onto a girl’s outer thigh as her male friend watched on.
“Can you fit me in tonight?” I asked, winded.
“Sorry,” the tattooist said, not looking up from his work. “Won’t be done until late. I can fit you in tomorrow, though. Nothing scheduled for the morning.”
Tomorrow? What if that ghost came back? No. I needed this tattoo back tonight. “I really need it done now. It’s sort of an emergency.”
“Yeah, well, you’ll have to somehow survive your tattoo emergency until tomorrow.” The tattooist rolled his eyes, and the three of them chuckled.
“You don’t understand. This is really important,” I said.
“And mine isn’t?” the girl lying on the bench asked, looking at the outline on her leg.
The tattooist stopped and looked up. “Like I said, come back tomorrow. She was here first.” He went back to his tattooing as if I weren’t there.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’ll wait until you’re done.”
He leaned back, this time putting his needle down. “Look, I’m not doing it tonight. Now get out.” The tattooist looked at the male friend. “Can you show her out so I can get back to work?”
The male, all six foot something of him, nodded, stood, and took a step toward me.
I backed up. “I’m going.”
I jogged home, worried I’d see something else.
I’d call in late and get the tattoo in the morning. It was just a tattoo, and getting rid of it might’ve had nothing to do with what happened. But still, the timing was too weird to ignore. I’d spent the last several months removing a tattoo that now I couldn’t wait to put back on.
In the meantime, I took my kitchen table and moved it in front of the door of my apartment. It was from a secondhand store. It showed its age, but the solid wood was heavy as hell. That wouldn’t stop a ghost, but it made the craziness that had been drilled into me by my mother quiet down a bit.
I showered, put on my last clean outfit, and then lay in bed while the stories my mother would tell me ran through my head. Most kids had bedtime stories of princes and princesses. Mine were about monsters and goblins that would come for me while I slept. My hand went to where my necklace lay against my chest, one of the last things I had from my mother.
I wrapped myself in three layers of blankets, closed my eyes, and tried to clear my mind of all the crazy thoughts trying to intrude, all the horrible stories I’d been told. I tried to obliterate all the memories of my childhood, praying that there wasn’t some grain of truth in them.
* * *
“I didn’t bring enough salt.”
My door hadn’t opened. How was there a voice inside my apartment? It had to be another ghost. I clenched my hands on the comforter. Don’t open your eyes. Pretend it’s not there. It’ll go away.
“You’re kidding me, right? You didn’t bring it again? How do you keep a job? If I wasn’t with you, you’d be thrown out on your ass.”
“Why didn’t you bring the salt if you’re such a professional?”
“Because I asked you and you said you had it. Just go find some. These humans always have salt.”
“Not sure I’m going to find anything in this barren wasteland,” a guy said. His footsteps shuffled away, and my bedroom door creaked open.
My heart was pounding. One left. If I could stab him with the knife under my pillow before the other one came back, I had a chance.
I turned, located the man, and swung in his direction. Before my arm completed its arc, the knife was knocked out of my hand. The guy had barely moved, but the knife was lying across the room. I stood defenseless in a worn sweatshirt with holes and faded leggings that had been black once upon a time.
The guy squinted as we took each other’s measure. He had a shaved head except for a single braid that sprouted from the top of his head. There were goggles strapped to his forehead, and he wore a studded black leather jacket.
“She’s awake! Can you hurry up with the salt?” Braid yelled toward the door.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Bounty hunter,” he said.
The other man walked in, this one with a full head of purple hair that formed spikes, wearing a silver jumpsuit that was nearly blinding.
Spike glanced at me where I’d pressed my back against the wall, before holding up salt packets to his friend. “She had some fast-food packets. Little stale and crusty, but they should work.”
“It’ll do,” Braid said, pulling a flask out of the interior pocket of his jacket. He opened it and made a puddle on my floor, and for some reason, all I could think about was the water stain it was going to leave if I didn’t clean it up soon. There went my security deposit. It wasn’t the sanest thought, but this situation wasn’t sane.
He kept pouring until it was large enough that the puddle hit the tips of my toes. He then ripped open the salt packets and sprinkled them onto the puddle. With a smile in my direction, they both stepped onto the puddle and then they were gone.
And so was I.
It felt like I’d been tossed out a window and dumped in the middle of a darkly lit room. The two men who’d been in my bedroom were there, as well as an older man that reminded me of a picture I’d seen of Einstein once. If anything was normal, that was the extent of it. This place looked older than most of the historical buildings in Salem, with stone walls and floors and a fireplace big enough for me to stand in. I didn’t recognize it either, not that I’d been in every building in the area.
Where was I? How had I gotten here? I peeked out the only window and my breathing halted as my heart raced. This was not Salem. It looked like some medieval place, with stone buildings lining the lane, and streetlights that appeared to be gas.
“What did I tell you about showing up without warning?” Einstein asked.
“This is the pop-up who had a price on her head,” Spike said, throwing a thumb in my direction.
“Where am I?” I asked the three men.
Einstein glanced at me and then back to Spike and Braid. “I’m not paying for her. I can’t feel any magic.”
“You said bring anyone in that has a price on their head and they’d be worth ten to you. Well, here she is.” Braid took a step closer to me and pointed.
“I’m not paying for her. She feels weak,” Einstein said.
I felt weak? Paying for me? What was wrong with these people? Was I awake?
“You didn’t even test her,” Braid said.
“Screw him,” Spike said.
“We’ll take her down the road. I heard Rottie was looking for someone,” Braid said.
These people were trying to sell me? They’d kidnapped me through a puddle and now they wanted to auction me off? This couldn’t possibly be real. I was losing it. I was ending up just like my mother. Insane. But if this was a delusion, it was a really good one.
“I think there’s been a mistake. I’m not supposed to be here. That’s why I’m not screaming magic. I have none. I don’t know who you people think I am, but I’m not that person. This is a huge mistake.”
They all looked at me, staring like I was crazy. Just for the heck of it, I patted myself on the cheek to see if I could wake up.
“I think she might be crazy,” Spike said softly to Braid.
Braid elbowed him and gave him a look that clearly told him to shut up.
“See? No magic and crazy,” Einstein said.
They stared at me for another half a second before Braid turned back to Einstein. “If you’re saying you don’t want her, fine. We’re taking her down the street.”
Braid grabbed my arm, tugging me toward the door. Spike followed us.
Einstein threw up a hand. “Just wait a second there. She’s not screaming ‘magic,’ but she might be useful on some of the factory floors.”
Braid tugged me back in the room.
This seemed like a dance these three had done many times before. I just wish I knew the steps as well as they did.
I tried to tug out of Braid’s grip, but his fingers wouldn’t budge. “I really don’t think you understand. I’m normal. I don’t have magic. I don’t know where I am, but I do know I shouldn’t be here. If you let me go, I won’t say a word about this place to anyone, ever. Just put me back where I was and we’re cool.”
“No one is talking to you. Shut up,” Braid said.
“I’ll test her,” Einstein said, shaking his head as he walked back behind the massive wood desk, one of the few pieces of furniture in the room. He opened a bunch of drawers. When he got to the bottom, something jumped out with a puff of smoke and hopped across the room with a fluffy grey tail, leaving a trail of dusty paw prints in its wake before it escaped into the hall.
Einstein waved a hand in the air, coughing. “Damn dust bunny,” he said before he went back to searching. “Where is that tester?” He moved to the door and yelled, “Mertie! Did you take my tester?”
“Bottom drawer on the right,” a female yelled back.
He walked back over, grumbling as he looked through the drawers again. “There it is. Blasted woman, always moving my stuff.”
He pulled out a small strainer, something that looked like you’d run orange juice through if you didn’t like pulp. It had a small jar that was stuck on the other side of it. He walked over, holding the strainer up in front of me.
“Take a deep breath, hold it for as long as you can, and then blow into here.” He tapped a long black nail on the jar.
As little as I understood, magic seemed to be what they were after. If I did have magic, and this thing proved it, what would happen to me then?
“I told you, I don’t have magic,” I said, trying to back away but stopped by the ever-present hand on my arm.
Braid lifted my arm, bringing me to my toes. “If you don’t have any magic, we don’t need you, and we aren’t going to waste our time taking you back. If you do have magic, you live, so I’d think hard on that.”
“You sure you don’t want to blow into the tester?” Spike asked.
“I’d do it if I were you,” came a small, squeaky voice. I searched the room and saw three see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkey statues on Einstein’s bookcase.
The monkey covering his mouth dropped his hand and said, “If you don’t have magic, you’re not here. If you’re not here, you’re not anywhere.”
The hear no evil monkey nodded as the see no evil monkey stared at me, eyes wide open.
“I’d listen to them. They never lie,” Spike said.
All three monkeys nodded this time.
If I’d needed a sure sign I wasn’t in Salem, besides a puddle sucking me up and spitting me out, and the view of a medieval city out the window, these monkeys had hammered the last nail in the coffin.
If this tester thing said I didn’t have magic, I was as dead as Spike’s eyes were. I didn’t know how many deaths they had on their hands, but I could almost see the blood dripping from their fingertips. My fate if I had magic was iffy at best, but my fate without magic had been spelled out all too clearly. I took a deep breath and blew into the strainer, while everyone watched on, including the monkeys.
It did nothing until I was nearly out of air, but then finally something happened. The last of my breath went through the strainer and the glass jar filled with a purple dust that shimmered and moved about like a strange sort of snow globe.
The monkeys on the desk snickered. “Just another Whimsy witch,” Speak No Evil said.
“See? Magic. Now pay up,” Braid demanded.
Einstein held the glass up, shaking it. “There’s plenty of Whimsy work to be done in the factory, so I guess I’ll take her.”
“That’ll be ten coins.”
Braid finally released my arm in order to hold out his palm toward Einstein, who flipped him a shiny gold coin.
Spike tipped his head. “Pleasure doing business with you,” he said.
The duo left through the door. I didn’t follow. It was clear I’d been bought and paid for.
I turned to Einstein. “Can you tell—”
“Mertie!” Einstein yelled over me. “Have a new one!”
Mertie appeared in the door less than a second later, slender with long black hair, bright red skin, and two horns on her head. “I heard you, boss. You don’t need to scream.”
My jaw dropped as I backed away. “I’m already dead, aren’t I? I’m in hell.”
Mertie rolled eyes that were nearly all black before turning to Einstein. “They all do the same shit. It’s getting old. When is this going to stop?”
“It’s not my fault you look like a demon,” Einstein said, settling back down in his chair.
“Then you’re not a demon?”
She groaned loudly. “Of course I’m a demon. Look at me! But I take offense at being called one. Now, come on, I don’t have all day.” She turned, waving at me to follow her. I went because at least she’d spoken directly to me.
She clomped down the hallway, her black leather miniskirt showing off kickass red legs and unfortunate hoofed feet that didn’t require shoes.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you,” I said, catching up to her. This was not the time to acquire enemies. I needed friends, even demon ones.
“It’s fine. I’m used to it.” She let out a little huff, the smell of smoke following it.
We walked down the long, narrow hallway, also built of stone. Then a circular staircase, also made of stone. There seemed to be nothing that wasn’t made of stone in this place.
After giving her a minute or two to calm down after my apparent insult, I asked, “Where am I, exactly?”
“You’re in Xest.”
“No. Not Zest. Xest. I can hear the X when you pronounce it.” I nodded, even though we were both pronouncing it the same way. I had much bigger problems than her hearing a hidden X in my pronunciation.
She stopped and snapped her fingers at me when I’d lagged behind for a second. “Hurry up.”
“Where is Xest? I’ve never heard of it.” If I could get my bearings, I could get back home. Right now I didn’t know what direction to take if I did run.
“Xest is Xest. It’s north of North and west of West.”
“Do you know where Massachusetts is?”
She groaned. “Of course I do. It used to be part of my territory before I changed—I know where it is. It’s in Rest, like everything that isn’t in Xest.”
“Where is Xest in regards to Salem?”
“It’s Xest of Salem. It’s Xest of everywhere, that’s why it’s Xest. North, South, East, and West is the Rest. See, this is the thing that’s so annoying about humans, or even fake ones like yourself. They can only go north, south, east, and west. For some reason that is beyond me, they can’t travel to Xest, where all the important things happen.”
I wanted to have that light-bulb aha moment, but as she talked, the lights faded more and more on my understanding. Where the hell was I?
“Is there anyone else I can talk to about leaving? I don’t belong here. I’m not a witch or Whimsy or a whatever it is that lives here. I should be where nothing important happens.”
“The magic mist, although unimpressive from what I saw sitting on the table, would say otherwise.”
She pushed open a wooden door on the bottom landing, and a blast of frigid air shot through my thin clothes. I got a clear view of this place, and it only made things worse. I’d wondered if I’d imagined what I saw upstairs. Now my bare feet were standing on a cobblestone street and I could see the gas lights up close. The few people that passed could’ve been human if it was Halloween and everyone had a costume on. This place looked like someone had taken medieval England, wrapped it up in a steampunk novel, and then sprinkled it with some fairy dust to see what would happen.
“Come on,” Mertie said, walking across the street to a row house. “This is where the Whimsy witches stay. The Whimsy warlocks are a door down, but don’t let me find you in there. We don’t have time for babies. Too much work to be done.”
Mertie opened the door to a large room that hadn’t seen a coat of paint since before I’d been born. Two mismatched couches with stuffing poking out of the arms took up one half of the large room. A long table that would’ve been at home in a military school cafeteria took up the other. There was fire burning in a small stone fireplace that shed a little light into the room and even less heat. From the girls scattered about, some in orange-striped clothing, it had the distinct feeling of a dormitory of sorts.
Could’ve been worse. It could’ve had bars instead of walls. From the lack of beds, and the amount of doors, those must have been bedrooms lining the main room.
“Rabbit!” Mertie yelled, making my ear closest to her ring. Was that screeching a remnant from her previous occupation as well? I could see how it would’ve come in handy.
A girl with full cheeks and blond ringlets popped her head out of a door. She saw me and smiled, as if I were an expected guest she’d been hoping for.
A few more heads popped out of the open doors lining the room, all checking out what was going on. None of them appeared to be as happy about my arrival as Rabbit, who nearly bounced her way over to us.
“Tippi,” I said, when Mertie looked at me like I was milk past its expiration date.
“She’s your new roommate. Show her the ropes and get her a uniform,” Mertie told Rabbit.
“Got it.” Rabbit beamed a smile that would’ve made a supernova turn green.
Mertie scowled, as if the cheeriness grated on her last nerve, before she turned and left the building.
The second she was gone, Rabbit rolled her eyes.
“Not sure you figured this out yet, but that woman is notnice. I’ve been trying to kill her with kindness for years, but it doesn’t seem to be working. I think there’s something wrong with my spell. I can’t figure out if it’s because my magic is too weak or if she’s already dead inside, and therefore can’t be killed.”
I smiled and nodded, pretending I didn’t notice the stares, as I tried to figure out if that was a joke. She wasn’t laughing, though, and neither was I. I needed to get back to Salem.
“Come on, I’ll get you some clothes and show you our room. Don’t mind the stares. Everyone always likes to check out the new witches.”
Most of the other women there eyed me up and then turned away, as if they hadn’t seen me at all. No hello, or who are you, or where are you from. The lack of all those questions made me fairly certain that this happened at least somewhat often.
Rabbit led me to a small room that was twelve by ten at most. The wide-planked wood floors were bare and bunk beds were on either side of me. A chest of four drawers was in the center.
“This is my bed, but the bunk over me is free.” She patted the thin mattress.
“Thank you, but I don’t think I’ll need it. Is there someone I can talk to? The thing is, I’m not a witch. There’s been a huge mistake. I really shouldn’t be here. I need to go back home to where I live.”
“Did you talk to Marvin? The guy with all the white hair? Old dude?”
“Yes, I did, but he wasn’t any help. He doesn’t understand that I can’t stay here. I have a home. They just took me.”
Her head tilted to the side. “That doesn’t sound right. They need a bounty to take you. I’ve dealt with a lot of pop-ups and there’s always something. What happened before you got here?” She tapped a finger to her lip.
“A lot of stuff happened. Some guy yelled at me, and then there was a séance and a ghost came. Then the ghost yelled at me, saying something about not paying. It was a horrible—”
“Wait, the ghost said you didn’t pay?”
“Yes.” It was something that would be crystal-clear in my mind as long as I lived.
“I think I see what happened,” she said, taking a seat. “You called in a service and didn’t pay. You’re probably indentured.”
I took a seat beside her. “What service? I didn’t call in anything.”
She bent her knee, turning toward me. “It was the séance. Your magic summoned someone from here. They probably filed a claim when they showed up but didn’t get paid. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t the one who called. You were the one with the magic, and it wasn’t paid. You owe the debt.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” I looked about the room, the bunk beds, the coarse grey blankets that added to the overall bleakness.
“It means you’re stuck in Xest until the debt is paid. Since it wasn’t negotiated ahead of time, you can’t haggle on the amount.”
How long would I be stuck here? Would I ever get out? This could not be my life. Mom, why didn’t I listen to you?
“You get used to it here. It’s not so bad once you do, and I’ll be your friend.”
The one thing I hadn’t seen in this crazy place was a guard.
“Do you know how I can get back? Do you have a map or something?”
“You’re only a Whimsy witch. You won’t have enough magic to jump puddles back to Rest. You’d need at least a strong Middling witch or warlock to do that, and you’re only a Whimsy witch or you wouldn’t be here.”
“What’s a Middling witch or a Whimsy witch?”
“I’ll try to explain, but coming from Rest—you know, north, south, east, and west—as you are, it’s going to be a hard thing for you to grasp right out of the gate.”
“Just do your best.” Any information beat the big, fat nothing I currently had.
She sat on her bed and patted the spot next to her as she continued. “There’s many levels of magic.” She dropped her hand low. “You’ve got your lowest-level magic, which is called Whimsy, which is what we are. So, you could have a Whimsy witch, Whimsy warlock, a Whimsy variety of another type.”
“What other type?” I had to leave here, like now.
“Well, obviously there aren’t just witches and warlocks, but…” She waved a finger. “Let’s skip that for now. It might be too much all in one night. I’ve talked a lot of pop-ups through their first times, and it’s better to take this in small pieces, chewable morsels that are easily digested. Let’s just leave it that there’s pretty much everything imaginable here but your run-of-the-mill human. Not that we haven’t had a couple accidentals, but they die within hours, having less magic than even a Whimsy.”
Dead in hours? Where had I landed? I was in some sort of magical hell.
Rabbit must have read some of the horror I was feeling, because she continued, “But let’s move on to something else. So a Whimsy witch or warlock has the least amount of magic you’re born with to be considered magical. It’s like a hop, skip, and a jump above a regular old human, or Rester, as they’re sometimes called. If you’re Middling, it’s just how it sounds. You’ve got some magic, but you’re not blowing anyone’s bangs back. Above them, you’ve got Braws. It’s best to steer clear of them altogether, not that a Braw would have anything to do with a Whimsy, but I don’t want you to make the mistake of approaching one. That would be pure foolishness. If they didn’t kill you, you’d never live it down.”
“So Braws are the strongest?” Then a Braw could definitely get me out of here, and probably a Middling too. I was new to this system, but I’d bet there was no way that the two thugs who’d brought me here were more than Middling.
“No, Makers are the strongest, but I’ve never met one of those myself. They’re called Makers because they’re so strong that they can do or make anything they want. They rule the roost, so to speak—if they exist, that is. I’ve only heard of people, who’ve heard of people, who thought someone might’ve met one once a long time ago.”
Okay, some Middling, all Braw, and definitely Makers. There was going to be someone in this place that would get me out.
“You said there were other pop-ups, like me? Are any of them here?” Having an alliance couldn’t hurt. I wasn’t sure anything could hurt right now. All help would be good.
Her mouth opened but she couldn’t seem to get the words out of it. The silence stretched on for a bit as she looked at the floor and her shoes and anywhere but me before she finally said, “No, there aren’t.”
“But I thought you’d said you talked a lot of Whimsy witches through their first days?”
She nodded. “I have, but they don’t tend to last long. Magic usually runs in families, so you don’t get strong magic popping up out of nowhere. Hence, pop-ups, if you haven’t figured out the name. It’s like a blip that occasionally happens. They come but burn out fast.”
Just as I thought this couldn’t get worse.
“How long do they usually live?” I asked, so I knew how long I had to get out of this place.
“Six months, sometimes. This girl, Cassie, she made it to a year. She was the longest, though,” Rabbit said, dropping her head and toying with the laces in her shoes.
The silence stretched out. “You could be different,” she said. “It’s always possible.”
“It’s okay,” I said, letting her off the hook. It didn’t matter because I wouldn’t be here that long. I was getting out of this place and back to Salem way before six months.
She looked up at me through her lashes, as if afraid to look straight at me in case I exploded.
“Really, it’s not your fault. I’m not going to die here.”
Coming November 1st! Hope you enjoy the first two chapters.
This is the first book in a series of standalone romances, set in the same dystopian world. It will have alternating first person POV.
Some memories are so horrible that they scar a permanent address into your brain, your own personal hell. Before the takeover, my hell occupied a tiny corner that was easy to avoid. In the three years since, that area has grown so large that one misstep could send me sprawling, dirty knees and burning palms, straight into the bad place. A smell, a sound, a shadowy figure and suddenly I’m surrounded by demons, all pointing pitchforks at me and while I stand on hot coals.
I’m not the only haunted person. Anyone who survived those first days, weeks, and months after the invasion was changed forever. Pretty much anyone left standing will never be the same.
When news first broke that vampires and werewolves had staged a military coup, stormed the White House, Pentagon, Capitol, I’d thought it was a joke. I changed the channel on the television, only to find every station reporting the same thing. The “scourge,” as humans referred to them in whispered voices, had been slowly infiltrating our government for years, setting up shadow networks, hijacking our electronics. The hacks the Russians and Chinese had been blamed for? They’d been scapegoats. In the course of one month, the scourge took possession of every nook and cranny of the United States. Over the next three years, they showered terror on every human being alive in the country.
I wasn’t sure if I’d ever come to terms with what life was now. The people who’d been thrown out of their homes, couldn’t feed their children, begged on street corners, pleading for any scrap they could get from people who didn’t have a crumb to spare. Or how many had died in the past three years. How many had been shot arbitrarily, or ripped apart limb by limb on the street. We were living with terrorists—every. Single. Day. This was life, if you decided to continue the challenge of waking up every day to this new reality, and not everyone had. I was among the ones who continued on, if just barely.
I opened my fridge to see a single pot of broth, made from discarded bones I’d stolen from the home I worked in. That was it—a single watery brew.
“Can you believe this? They’re actually saying that we voted for another damned vampire, like the elections were real or some crap.” My father shook out the paper in front of him as he sat at the kitchen table.
One of the first things the werewolves and vampires had done when they took over was outlaw smartphones and computers for humans. We’d gone back to dumb phones and ink-covered fingers. The ink stains weren’t worth it, considering reporters only printed what was approved. The only reason they moved any of the free copies was that it made excellent kindling.
“At least they didn’t put one of their troll enforcers in the position. They’d never have another photo op, like, ever,” my sister Sassy said as she walked in, chaotic curls framing her face, just like my own, except hers were like the brightest sunshine and mine the color of a moonless sky. “I don’t know why they had to take the U.S., though. Why not a nice little country over in Europe?”
“Because if they did that, they were probably afraid the U.S. would bomb them. Now they have the most bombs,” I said.
My father ducked his head back down and continued reading, while Sassy stood behind him and raised an invisible bottle to her lips. It wasn’t needed. The smell of alcohol permeated the room like a dam had burst on the Whiskey River. My father, another casualty of this new world, had been broken in a less obvious way.
“I’ll be back. I’ve got to get to Arnold’s before closing,” I said.
My father chose that moment to pull his head from the paper, and his mind from the whiskey haze, to really look at me. He scanned the white collared shirt that would have a bow tie later, the black pants with a satin stripe down the side.
“What’s that you’re wearing? I told you not to go back there.” He slammed his hand down on the table, rattling the shakers.
And told me and told me and told me. The only thing he hadn’t told me was how we were going to eat if I didn’t.
I grabbed my jacket from the chair, pretending he hadn’t spoken. It didn’t matter. He’d keep going, like a broken record that couldn’t get past a deep gouge.
“You’re a disgrace to your mother every time you go there, Pen. How can you work for them after what they did to her?”
The first time he’d said that, it felt like a red-hot poker stabbing me dead center in the heart, a killing shot. I’d gone off and cried until my eyes puffed and my vision tinted red. The second time he’d said it, it was like a room-temperature steak knife. Now? It was an annoying poke with a rounded spoon. He could say anything he wanted, but it didn’t change the fact that he ate the food I paid for.
He hadn’t gotten off the couch to get a job in three years. Not that they were easy to get with the job approval process—but still. He’d given up. On himself, on life, on us, and for that, I couldn’t forgive him, so I guessed we were even.
“I’ll be back in a few,” I said to Sassy, not looking at my dad anymore. I pushed out the door before I heard him grumble again.
Sassy followed me, grabbing my arm before I made it off the back stoop. “Why don’t I go? You still have to work tonight.”
“I can do it. You should—”
“I’m fine,” she said, with cheeks too flushed and eyes too glassy.
“I know,” I lied, for her sake and mine. It wasn’t a subject either of us were ready to openly discuss. It was why I pretended to sleep when I heard her coughing in the middle of the night. Didn’t say anything when she got winded climbing stairs at night. Even now, I worried about the chill in the air.
“But you’re still going to go. You don’t have to shoulder the burden for everyone,” she said, crossing her arms.
“We’ll fight about this tomorrow.”
Her chin dropped as she rolled her eyes. “This is our fight from yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.”
“And tomorrow we can fight today’s fight. Why break a streak?”
She was shaking her head as I walked away. I jogged in the direction of Arnold’s before she got any more ideas.
Arnold’s was to the left, but I made a right. I hadn’t walked in front of the Jenkinsons’ yard for years, not since they’d gotten caught with a smartphone shortly after the takeover. The HBE (Human Behavior Enforcement) had shown up at their house at four in the morning just months after the takeover. We suspected someone had turned them in, because how the new government had found out about the one small phone was a mystery.
We’d watched from slits in the blinds as they questioned the family on their front lawn. One by one, they’d shaken their heads and denied it was their phone. In the end, the guards had shot all four of them, the parents and both their children, leaving their bodies to rot on the lawn with a warning to all that they weren’t to be moved.
That was when I started avoiding their house. I hadn’t wanted to see the kids I once babysat decomposing, not that the smell let you forget. The entire block had smelled of their death.
Leaving your house at all these days could be dangerous. I kept my eyes down as I walked briskly, my arms wrapped around my waist as the cold of D.C. in winter invaded my jacket. There might be a vampire in the Oval Office and a werewolf commanding the Army, but that was just the tip of the iceberg of what you needed to avoid. You also had your run-of-the-mill creatures, like the two trolls about to punch each other in the face, arguing on the corner. I crossed the street before I got to them. They were nasty, angry creatures, always looking to fight.
We had fairies in all shapes and sizes flying around, some larger than humans, all the way down to ones as small as fireflies. They’d dim their light and hide in corners, ready to turn you in for the smallest slight, like tarnishing the reputation of one of their kind, or getting caught calling the ruling class scourge. Leprechauns who were perpetually pissed off, almost as bad as the trolls. Centaurs that would race down the street, betting with their companions on who could trample you first. Each race had brought some new threat, and there was no lack of them now.
Once the vampires and werewolves took over, there had been an onslaught of other races flooding in, ready to live out in the open. Even as I walked down the street of the neighborhood I’d grown up in, the place looked barely recognizable.
It wasn’t just the creatures. It was the landscape. There were houses completely covered in strange, fine webbing that glittered, like some sort of alien spider web. Others were knocked down altogether and replaced by what appeared to be mountains of boulders. One thing was for sure: this was not my world anymore. It wasn’t any human’s world. We were cheap labor and a food supply. We were cattle on one gigantic, supernatural farm.
“Hey, Arnold.” I waved to the store’s namesake where he stood behind the counter, while ignoring the purple-haired fairy, about the size of his fist, hovering a few feet behind him. Her name was Gwen. The one and only time I tried to greet her out of a sense of politeness, she’d sneezed repeatedly, spewing gold dust all over the place while Arnold cursed.
“You’re soooo human you’re making my nose stuffy,” she’d said. She’d finished sneezing and moved on to gagging noises, as if I were a glob of phlegm that got stuck in her throat.
Apparently, humans were like a bad cat allergy to some fairies. That had been the beginning and end of our interactions, other than glares. Arnold appeared to merely tolerate her as well, but it was the price you paid these days if you wanted to run an establishment. You had to pay out of pocket for your own personal spy that reported everything back to the HBE.
“Cutting it close today, Pen?”
“Yeah, had a late shift last night and slept in a bit too long.” I walked over to the fridge and grabbed the last package of eggs. I took a loaf of bread off the dwindling pile on the table before I made my way back to the counter.
“That’s it?” Arnold asked me the same question every time. It was a knee-jerk question, considering he ran a store.
“Yep, that’s it.” It was getting so I’d rather shop somewhere else than repeat my answer almost daily.
I bought the same thing every time I came, with very little variation. That was all I could afford. Instead of lashing out at the man who didn’t deserve it, I smiled as I dug my credits out of my pocket.
Except they weren’t there. I checked my other pockets. They were both barren, but I had a wealth of heat in my cheeks as I stared at the items sitting on the counter. It was supposed to be dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow. But the three credits that were going to pay for it were gone.
Gwen made a sniffing noise that somehow sounded arrogant.
Arnold’s bald head shone under the lights as his eyes flickered back and forth between the items I wanted and me.
“I can’t do credit, Penelope. You know I would if I could, but after what happened to Sal…” Arnold spoke Sal’s name with reverence now, but he’d once been Arnold’s archnemesis and competing store owner. Gwen floated closer, listening to every word and waiting to report back.
“I’d never ask you to,” I said.
The entire neighborhood knew what happened to Sal. Last month, his body had been found in the early morning hours, lying across the front stoop of his shop. He was being fed upon by the local dogs that now lived on the streets, turned loose by owners who couldn’t afford to feed them anymore.
The dogs hadn’t killed him—Sal’s throat had been slit—but the calling card had been his missing left hand. Mind your own business. Keep to yourself. Don’t offer a helping hand or you won’t have a hand to offer. The word on the street was that he’d extended credit to a struggling mother with a baby. He’d only given her a quart of milk, but word had gotten back. It always did.
That was how the scourge had set it up. Humans were always a little too hungry, and a little too desperate, just enough for some to turn their backs on their neighbor if it meant another meal on the table for their family. It had gotten so bad that some people made things up to report to the HBE.
I reached down, slipped off my shoe, and pulled back the lining, to fish out the single credit I kept for emergencies. A night of broth counted as that. It wasn’t enough for the eggs, but it would cover the loaf.
The door jingled behind me as another customer walked in, and I heard the sound of the refrigerator opening.
“Arnold, do you have any more eggs? It’s an emergency. I’m baking a cake and ran out. Batter’s mixed already,” Mrs. Clementine called out from across the store. Mrs. Clementine’s husband was an accountant and at the top of his field, recruited by the scourge shortly after the takeover. Mrs. Clementine loved to brag about the neighborhood, how the vampires adored her husband so dearly for making sure assets were being tracked and divided equally. She often remarked how stupid the rest of us were for not trying harder to get along with them. She said other things too, but I tuned out everything after that.
The sound of the refrigerator door preceded heels clacking on the floor, heading toward me.
“Arnold, do you have some in the back? I really need eggs. I don’t want my batter to go bad.”
Arnold and I both looked at the eggs sitting in between us on the counter. I’d taken the last carton, and we both knew I wouldn’t be buying them.
Arnold pointed to the eggs. “Do you mind? It’s just…”
I’d seen Arnold’s kids run around the store wearing sneakers with holes that probably pinched their feet. They were gangly, and not from lots of exercise. We all had problems these days.
“Of course not.” I swallowed hard. “You can have these,” I said, picking up the eggs and turning toward Mrs. Clementine, who hovered behind me. “I still have some at home.”
“Aren’t you so sweet.” She took the eggs from my hand with a cool smile that told me she doubted my story.
I turned back to Arnold and handed him my last credit before taking the loaf of bread. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
He nodded, not looking confident that I would. Luckily, this time it was true. I was working tonight.
I walked out of Arnold’s as I dug into my pockets again, making sure I hadn’t somehow missed the credits. I didn’t look up until I hit a brick wall dressed in a leather jacket that was as soft as butter.
I bounced off, slipped on a patch of ice, and landed on my ass. The wall was a middle-aged man of average height, average brown hair, average—everything. He was one of them. Shifters felt like they were flesh-wrapped cinder blocks.
“Sorry, miss.” He bent down, offering me a hand up.
It hovered between us like a viper, ready to bite. I wanted to lop its head off.
“Bigs, leave her be. We don’t have time, and she clearly thinks she’s too good for you.”
I looked past Mr. Average toward the deep voice that was so low it nearly hummed through me. His face was all angles as his broad form leaned against the black sedan like a lethal animal at rest. He was dressed in a shirt so crisp and perfect that his employees must follow him around handing him changes throughout the day. He barely spared me a glance before his attention shifted to his gold watch. A thick lock of dark hair dropped over his forehead and drew my attention to eyes so cool that they could’ve been carved from glaciers.
Bigs’ hand moved slightly closer.
“I’m good.” I got up, avoiding Bigs and noticing the gaping hole in the side of my pants. Dammit. Fucking fucker. There went tomorrow’s eggs. They’d dock my pay tonight to cover the cost of a new pair.
Bigs hesitated nearby before he resigned himself and went inside. The other one had his chilly gaze directed my way as he dug in his pocket. “Here.”
There was a flash of movement before something came flying my way. I didn’t catch it. I didn’t trust him enough to touch whatever was flying at me.
I took a step back as a hundred-credit coin dropped to my feet. My heart did a little flutter as I stared at it. That would buy a whole lot of eggs.
“Take it. Looks like you need it.” His gesture might’ve been generous, but his gaze wasn’t.
“I don’t need your charity.” I narrowed my eyes, trying to show him how much I despised him, his kind, and everything they’d done to us, all in one stare. It was a tall order, but it was all I had. Speaking out of turn to one of the scourge would get you killed, quick and easy.
He lifted his eyes from his phone to meet my gaze, then slowly perused me from head to toe. “Are you sure about that?” He went back to his phone, as if whether I took the coin meant nothing to him.
I should’ve walked away. I couldn’t stop staring at the credit lying on the ground. That coin could feed us for weeks. Why not take it? He didn’t care. He’d moved on, not even paying attention to me anymore. He’d probably leave it on the ground and someone else would pick it up. It was my coin. I leaned down, grabbed it slowly, and turned, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
“Stubborn but not stupid,” he said as I left.
I wanted to turn around and tell him to fuck off. Four years ago, when I’d been a girl of twenty-two who’d aced her MCATS and was attending one the best medical schools in the country, I would’ve turned around and told this asshole to go fuck himself. If I did that same thing tonight, I’d take a beating at the very least, maybe even die. If I survived, there wouldn’t be a single person to complain to, because there was no more police force, not for humans. The police had been absorbed by the HBE. It was more human than creature, and those humans got perks. It was hard when the neighbor you’d made mud patties with was willing to sell you out for a couple muffins at the end of the week.
It didn’t matter. I didn’t have the time to get into a fight. I had to get home before curfew; after that, you had to show a work card, and you needed to be either traveling there or back. So instead of screaming all the obscenities I wanted to, I kept my back to him and pretended the entire scene hadn’t happened, praying that one of these days he’d get his.
There was only one thing left to hope for: that there was some sort of karma in this world and things would right themselves. And one day? These monsters would pay for everything they’d done.
My ragged breathing muffled the noises around me as I sucked in more air than my lungs could hold. Twigs hung from tangled hair. Rocks dug into my palms and knees. There was a rip in my leather pants, my shirt was torn, and I had scratches everywhere my flesh was exposed.
Burn dropped to the ground beside me and then flipped to his back, his lungs needing more clearance. Sneak was bent over, hands on his knees, the flesh of his neck sucking in with every labored breath.
“Damn, that was close,” Burn said in between gasps.
My fingers tightened around the stone, its magic throbbing in my hand. I’d barely lifted it past the ward when a horde of stinging nettle beetles were unleashed. One second there had been nothing, and the next, we’d been running for our lives.
Ryker had yanked me back and then yelled for us to run and get out of range. As soon as we did, wave after wave, the beetles had dropped while we dodged the few that managed to keep pace with us.
It was a good thing my legs hadn’t failed me, because within seconds of taking off, I’d been robbed of my magic. This was the second time Ryker had done it. It felt exactly the same as the first time, like a great vacuum had sucked out my insides and then scraped the lining. I knew from past experience that I wouldn’t feel human for another few hours.
Ryker stepped into the clearing a few minutes later, looking like a lion after a leisurely stroll. Magic was still pouring off him, his eyes deep and feral. The Cursed King in all his glory.
I wanted to plow into him and knock him on his ass. Anger erupted inside me, ready to explode. We were up to six stones in the last three months, and this was the second time he’d crossed the line and taken my magic, and I no longer cared if it was by accident.
“Let’s get going. We don’t know what else might be coming,” Ryker said.
He was right about moving on. I swallowed the anger, feeling as if I’d choke upon it but holding it down anyway. This wasn’t the place or time to have an all-out, throw-down fight.
We weren’t sure who the latest stone belonged to, but it hadn’t been buried out here in the middle of nowhere by accident. The owner might have felt his ward getting cracked open like a bad egg and come sniffing around for the stench of intruders.
Ryker held out his hand, offering to help me to my feet. I ignored it, standing on my own. We might not be brawling now, but we would be soon. I saw no reason to pretend otherwise.
I threw my discarded bag back over my shoulder and began walking in the direction of the stashed chugger that we’d drive home. Burn and Sneak felt the tension in the air and were staring, mouths hanging open, wondering what they’d missed. I didn’t tell them as I walked. If I spoke, I’d be cracking open.
We made it to the chugger in record time, my weakened legs fueled by anger.
I’d almost made it to the door when Ryker walked up behind me.
“Things happen. It was an accident,” he said.
His words didn’t ring of an apology.
On the trek over here, I’d convinced myself it would be better to not hash this out until we got back to the Valley. But if he was going to rip the subject open, I wouldn’t slam it shut. My rage was still boiling over, the emptiness I felt inside giving it that much more room to burn.
I spun. “You saidit wouldn’t happen again.”
After the merge, he’d promised me he’d never take my magic without my permission. He’d done it. Twice. The first time I’d accepted it as a slip. I’d buried the hurt and ignored the gnawing ache it had left for hours. I hadn’t made a thing over it. After all, I’d made more mistakes in my life than I wanted to recall. Who hadn’t?
But how many times was I supposed to look the other way? He couldn’t possibly understand what it felt like, to be standing there, stripped of your magic, feeling utterly defenseless in the worst possible moment.
I turned and walked off, putting as much space as I could between us before things took an ugly turn.
He followed behind me, his hand landing on my shoulder and spinning me around. “You’re overreacting.”
There was nothing he could’ve said that would’ve made the fury burn hotter. He’d stepped all over my magic, plowed past my line in the sand, did what he said he’d never do again, and acted like it was a tiny slip-up? As if I was the one out of line?
My fist connected with his gut. I heard a groan. It wasn’t from Ryker but Burn, who was cringing as he looked on. Burn and Sneak were off to the side, staying well out of range.
Ryker grabbed my wrist, holding my hand in between us. “You get one shot. That’s it.”
I narrowed my eyes and jerked my hand from his grip. “I want this connection between us severed. If there’s a way to do it, there’s a way to undo it.”
I tried to walk around him and head back toward the chugger.
Ryker stepped in front of me. “What about the problem that someone might still want you dead? What do you plan on doing about that? Our merge is the only thing keeping you alive.”
“We have plenty of stones. We don’t need to be joined. We can kill whoever we want now.” I moved to the right.
He moved with me. “We don’t know whoto kill.” He stared at me as if I were insane.
Maybe I was crazy, but he was the one driving me to it.
I plowed past him and tossed my bag into the chugger. “I’m willing to take my chances,” I said, letting my rage answer.
“You’re being an idiot.”
“It’s not only your call,” I yelled.
He crossed his arms as he stared at me. “I’m not going to help you get yourself killed. Once you calm down, you’ll see it’s the right choice.”
Those words did the opposite of calming me. They enraged me. “You don’t own me. You don’t make my decisions. Do we have that clear?”
“Very clear. And you don’t make mine. I’m not doing it.” He walked around to the driver’s side of the chugger, yelling, “Get in or walk. Your choice, but I’m leaving.”
I jumped into the back of the chugger, preferring to be bounced around than sit next to Ryker the entire way home.